Leave the World Behind Chooses Politics over Character

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

Netflix’s Leave The World Behind has quite a pedigree. First of all, it stars some of the best out there: Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay, Mahershala Ali as Manhattan aristocrat G.H., and Kevin Bacon as weirdo contractor/prepper Danny. It’s written and directed by Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot fame. And listed as Executive Producers are Michelle and Barack Obama. These are all very talented people.

I wish that were enough to make it a good movie.

Unfortunately, this is a film that chooses its warning messages–about political, racial, and social divisions, about our overdependence on technology, about our dissociation from nature, about our intergenerational misunderstandings–over any sort of realistic characterization or narrative. The result is too often a simplistic, heavy handed mess that thinks it’s more clever than it actually is. Here, in no order whatsoever, is a list of ways that this holiday apocalyptic movie viewing let me down:

SPOILERS! Oh, and the acting is top notch! Mahershala Ali in particular can elevate any material he’s given. So no shade to the actors themselves, only to their characters.

When did Julia Roberts become unlikeable?

She used to be the most effortlessly charming actress in Hollywood! That was her superpower! But between this and Ticket to Paradise, she’s perfected playing sour middle-aged women to the point that one has to wonder if that brittleness has been there all along. Her Amanda hates people and says so often enough that people watching are forced to sort of hate her back. It’s an interesting choice for a main character.

Female characters, as a rule, aren’t allowed to be unlikeable. That’s a truism any writer can tell you, we’ve all been given that note by editors and executives and readers and commenters. “She’s too nasty, she’s too rude, she’s too WHATEVER, she’s just not likeable enough…” There’s no such thing as an antiheroine. But this movie doesn’t really have a likeable female character, they’re all somewhat hard to take. I had to sit with it for a while and examine my internalized misogyny. I did actually appreciate that.

And yet, I remained annoyed by Julia Roberts in this role. She’s just that good.

They got Long Island totally wrong.

This movie is set on Long Island, and it’s a great setting for an apocalypse centered in New York City because you can’t get off Long Island without going through the city. That’s what G.H. says, and it’s correct. It’s why they shouldn’t have even tried building a nuclear power plant here, but I digress. I’m from Long Island, along with several million other people. There is no place on Long Island where you can be in an isolated rural community and also see Manhattan. You can do both things on Long Island! It’s just that you have to be a hundred miles apart to do them. I came across people on Reddit telling us LI complainers to suspend our disbelief as if it were a minor quibble, but again, there are 3 million people on Long Island, 8 million if you include Brooklyn and Queens (which are, in fact, on Long Island). That’s a lot of people who watch Netflix and are all going to be thinking “how the fuck can these characters see the city from the Hamptons?” at a moment of high drama when you don’t want viewers to be thinking that. I’m just saying.

The animals make no sense.

Why are the animals acting strangely? Deer herding and menacing, flamingoes landing in backyard pools. It doesn’t track and it isn’t explained. There’s a snippet of news radio that mentions an impact on migration patterns, but it’s frankly impossible that an impact on migration patterns among different species could have been noticed in the few hours since the navigation issues and unexplained shrieking noises began, especially given the fact that half the scientists on Earth don’t have access to functioning equipment at the moment thanks to the blackout and satellites being offline. Furthermore, what’s causing the animals to be weird? Is it radiation? Why would that make them exhibit bizarre behavioral changes instead of simply getting sick? And why are we meant to just swallow the explanation that they’re “warning us” which the movie gives? They don’t appear to be doing so, and there’s no reason animals would give a crap about warning humans anyway.

The animal behavior is a strange, Shyamalan-esque touch, but its lack of any payoff was more annoying than satisfying. Was there symbolism? Did the deer bring Amanda and Ruth together? Sure, I guess. Was the juice worth the squeeze? Not really.

Were the racial undertones necessary?

Probably? I just wish it had been done better. It was hard to tell where Amanda’s kneejerk reaction against G.H. and Ruth was coming from, because absolutely it could’ve been racism, but it could also have been the fact that they were strangers knocking on the door of a place she wasn’t used to in the middle of the night and asking to come inside where her kids were sleeping without offering ID right up front. Had they all been white, her response would still make sense. Had they all been Black, her response would still make sense. To me, it’s a matter of the writing–there were ways to make it more clearly an issue of race if that’s what was wanted. But I think what was wanted, actually, was ambiguity. Because Amanda is a white woman, most viewers will read her reaction as racism, and have. But Esmail rather pointedly doesn’t come right out and let the script say that, instead trying to make the audience complicit in the murky discussion of the issue.

Amanda scoffing at the idea that G.H. owns the gorgeous house reads not as a scared woman wondering why the owners would just appear in the middle of the night, but rather as doubt that Black people could be wealthier than her. This concept is picked up on instantly by Ruth, a Millennial (or Gen Z? I couldn’t tell how old she was meant to be) who holds it against Amanda, and understandably so. But I have to ask, if Amanda had been anything other than a white woman, or middle-aged, would it have played so easily into our preconceived notions? It would, in fact, be frightening if strangers knocked on your Airbnb in the middle of the night, claimed to own the place, and asked to come in. You would ask for ID. It wouldn’t matter if they knew your name and it wouldn’t matter what their race was, or what your race was. You would not want to let them in right away. You would be afraid. Using just the example of this movie, had Kevin Bacon’s prepper character been the one at the door that night, Amanda would have reacted the same way to him and viewers would have been on her side.

Before I get flamed, I’m not defending racism or the idea–an unfortunately prevalent one–that people of color cannot hold wealth. Leave the World Behind played with a lot of concepts around the way racism shapes interactions, like how Ruth keeps pointing out that she and G.H. are sleeping in the basement of their own house while the white family sleeps upstairs, and how Clay’s inability to speak Spanish allows him to dehumanize a woman who needs help. I’m simply saying that the way the initial scenes were written is manipulative in trying to drive characters (and viewers) to conclusions that aren’t necessarily warranted by the circumstances, and aren’t the way people would actually act or talk. I’m a very liberal person and even I was bothered by how heavy handed the “look at these liberal white people who can’t recognize their own racism” aspects of the script were. Perhaps if Amanda hadn’t been such a misanthrope to begin with, her racism would’ve been more clear. As it was, the writing was vague enough to allow for the possibility that she would’ve been every bit as rude and unwelcoming to a white father and daughter at the door in the middle of the night. Or an Asian one. Or two women, or whoever. She’s a bitch, and she was scared, so she lashed out.

And later, when she FINALLY acknowledges to G.H. that her initial behavior to them was terrible, she doesn’t even say that it was about racism, she doesn’t make clear whether she’s talking about racism or simple nastiness, and neither does he. Viewers are supposed to draw their own conclusions. I find that annoying, because it’s clear the filmmakers think they’re being coy, but they’re really not. We all know what conclusions we’re supposed to draw. She’s a liberal white woman who harbors racist thoughts that she doesn’t want to acknowledge. The writing doesn’t spell it out, but that’s what we all think.

I’m mad at Sam Esmail for this, and also at the Obamas, who executive produced this movie. And the reason I’m mad at these people is because I like and admire them all and I think they can do better. This movie isn’t as clever as they think it is.

The kids aren’t all right.

There are multiple generations in this story, though I’m fuzzy on how many. The parents–Clay, Amanda, and G.H.–are all Gen X because the actors who play them are all Gen X. It’s their children I’m not sure about. G.H.’s daughter Ruth is an adult still “figuring out” what she wants to do and be, which could mean she’s 22 or 30, who even knows anymore? Maybe she’s a young Millennial. Maybe she’s an old Gen Z. Either way she’s got the judgmental attitude of youth down, and she doesn’t trust anyone beyond her family in a crisis, she instantly pegs the racial, class, and sexual subtext in every interaction (although I’m not sure she always gets it right), and she’s in no rush to join the hamster wheel of capitalism. We are all Amanda’s exasperated expression at hearing a phenomenally rich girl say this unironically.

Amanda’s own kids are also hard to peg–Archie is a teenager, but is he 15 or 18? Unclear. He sneaks pics of Ruth in her bikini, so he’s a jerk but also a normal boy in terms of hormones. Ruth doesn’t call him on it but later complains about it to her dad, which seems out of character since she’s happy to call Amanda and Clay on everything they say and do. Rose is maybe 10? Maybe older? I can’t tell. She could be that unformed new Alpha generation, the great unknown that my own youngest kid is part of. What even are they? Nobody knows.

In Rose’s case, she’s a kid obsessed with old TV shows like Friends and, hilariously, The West Wing but only the Sorkin seasons. Rose openly states that nobody cares what she says and she’s obviously right, because she spends the entire movie complaining that she’ll never get to see how Friends ends now and not a single person in that house tells her how it ends. Screw them all! They are terrible parents, they are terrible people in general.

None of the adults want to tell their kids anything about what’s going on, which is honestly just stupid. But even stupider is that we’re supposed to believe that these kids wouldn’t ASK why all the adults are panicky and nothing electronic works and there’s a fucking national emergency warning on the TV. And loud shrieking noises in the air. And animals acting freaky. Kids aren’t dumb and these kids aren’t toddlers. Ruth, for her part, knows her mother is on a plane and the world is in crisis, but G.H. continues telling her it’s all fine. That’s just cruel. And it’s nonsensical. These parents believe there is a war going on. How long do they plan to keep their kids in the dark?

The most ridiculous and unbelievable part of all, though, and the thing that took me right out the movie, is that when the WiFi went down at the house, the two kids just went outside and swam in the pool. Has anyone involved in this movie met a teenager in the past ten years? Archie and Rose would have been SCREAMING nonstop until they had service. There would have been no peace in that house until their phones were usable again, until he could text his girlfriend and she could watch her videos. Any script that has a family say “the WiFi is down, maybe we need to reset the router” and then leisurely meanders on to the next morning without tears and tantrums and the whole place being torn apart looking for said router is absolute nonsense. Gen Z doesn’t know how to exist without their phones. And Generation Alpha? I think they might end up being some new step in our evolution that simply incorporates the internet into their blood.

New Yorkers don’t minimize terrorist threats.

I’ll leave it with this one. Early on, G.H. floats the possibility that this blackout could be the result of terrorism, and in spite of other strange things happening, Amanda rolls her eyes and keeps handwaving away the idea. Even after an emergency warning shows up, explicitly saying THIS IS NOT A DRILL, she continues to say it will all be fine in the end, that everything will go back to normal. She and Clay even tell each other that as they try to head for her sister’s house in their car.

But these people are all from New York City, and again, they are Gen X. That means they’re old enough to remember September 11. New Yorkers understand what a terrorist attack feels like, they know that terrorism is sickeningly possible even here in America, and they fully realize that things don’t ever go back to normal afterwards. They would’ve been in lockdown and survival mode from minute one.

It’s the most awful example of how this movie ignores good character work in favor of making political/cultural points. The sad part is, the messages Leave the World Behind wants us to hear would be so much more impactful if it were delivered by these terrific actors playing well-written characters.

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